- “The Walled City”Industrial Flux in Red Hook, Brooklyn, 1840–1920
Landscape may be defined in many ways, but it certainly implies human involvement. Landscapes are places where activities, buildings, and infrastructure coalesce to form a distinctive space. When a landscape is located in a rapidly growing city where investors are transforming the local economy, the pace of urban development only intensifies change. This article will use the waterfront neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn as a case study to understand patterns of change within an urban industrial landscape. Using this specific built environment as a lens makes it possible to focus on broad shifts in industrial production and urban development and to examine the early success and ultimate failure of a particular landscape.
From about 1840 to 1920, Red Hook thrived as a center for the storage of low-value, high-bulk goods within the bustling Port of New York. The period of Red Hook’s boom coincided with the dramatic development of the United States into a major industrial nation. Revolutions in transportation (the steam engine, the railroad) opened up vast new markets and resources. New means of communication (the telephone and telegraph) connected people and information with astonishing new speed, changing long-established perceptions of time and space. The growth of industry, transportation, and communication would ultimately pave the way for the organizational revolution, making possible the replacement of small, individual firms with overwhelmingly large corporations. Helping to drive this industrial conquest was the growth of the city itself; urbanization and industrialization were two sides of the same coin.1
These sweeping events make up the very broad strokes of a complex history. But how do they play out in any given place? And how does the physicality of the built environment interact with and respond to the dynamic of national developments? Red Hook, located in a major port city, offers the opportunity for a meaningful analysis of general historical trends. Red Hook’s buildings, docks, and streets formed an industrial ecosystem that fed off of local and national advances in technology, allowing it to grow in scope throughout the nineteenth century. The system began showing signs of stagnation by the turn of the twentieth century, and industrial investors ultimately decamped for other locales. Though attempts were made to reverse this trend, they failed. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for Red Hook’s collapse because the area belonged to such a complex cultural landscape. But a close study of the neighborhood’s storage facilities—key to its success—indicates that Red Hook was not simply the victim of economies beyond the control of its investors. Rather, the strictures of its buildings and infrastructure ultimately contributed to its decline.
The docks and storehouses at Atlantic Basin were among the earliest to be built in the area, and they established a pattern for the subsequent development of Red Hook’s landscape. While delivering prosperity to the neighborhood, the Basin arguably limited Red Hook’s growth by making it too reliant upon too few sources of industry. Site, transportation infrastructure, warehouse design, and unfettered access to the waterfront by private interests allowed Atlantic Basin to succeed. But investors in later projects, [End Page 53] who sought to mimic this setup, met with varying degrees of success. Some, like the designers of Erie Basin, prospered by efficiently using the landscape and its available infrastructure. Others, like the men who built concrete lofts for the New York Dock Company and the twentieth-century grain elevator at Gowanus, failed because they misunderstood the landscape, staking their success on trade patterns that no longer existed.
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Located on Brooklyn’s western shore between Buttermilk Channel and Gowanus Bay, Red Hook played an important role in establishing Brooklyn’s status as a warehousing center (Figure 1). Initially developed in the mid-nineteenth century, Red Hook grew into a center of storage, serving as a gateway for bulk goods bound for import and export around the world...